Grim Reaper Tattoos: History, Meanings & Designs

Grim Reaper Tattoos: History, Meanings & Designs

Tattoos of the Grim Reaper have been a longstanding tradition of tattoo artists everywhere but many people still wonder about the origins of these tattoos, what they symbolize, where they are worn, and what are some common styles of this popular tattoo?

The grim reaper began as a symbol of death, the experience that all things living must eventually experience.  Today they are worn by men and women alike, in a variety of locations, and can be commonly found with other symbols that portray death.


What Is The History Of Reaper Tattoos?

Reaper tattoos have been around since the beginning of the modern tattoo trade.  Historically, they gained quite a bit of popularity with criminal organizations like 1%er motorcycle gangs.  

During a time when tattoos were only worn by those who lived outside the law, the reaper was an effective way to represent one’s own lack of fear and unwillingness to conform to societal standards.  

What Do Reaper Tattoos Symbolize?

The grim reaper is most commonly associated with the embodiment of death or the duality of life and death within the human condition.  They symbolize the ticking clock that we all have in our lives.  No one can escape death, and no one can escape the reaper.


What Do Reaper Tattoos Mean?

While a tattoo can mean many different things depending on the artist or the person receiving the tattoo, the reaper commonly expresses a person’s ability to deal with death.  People who are comfortable enough with the idea of death and loss will sport a reaper tattoo on their bodies.

If one can conquer their fear of death, then they have nothing to fear at all (other than taxes maybe).

Where Do Reaper Tattoos Usually Go?

Reaper tattoos can be found all over the body, but some popular locations include:

  • Neck
  • Shoulder
  • Bicep
  • Hand
  • Forearm
  • Back
  • Chest
  • Thigh
  • Calf

Back and chest pieces are very popular because of the large canvas that allows for more detail to be encompassed.  Reapers on the chest frequently showcase a human heart.

Necks, legs, arms, and hands serve as popular sites because they can still be seen when wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts.


Characteristics And Styles Of Reaper Tattoos

Artists have put their own spin on the reaper over the years, but there are a few characteristics that are synonymous with this iconic tattoo.

The reaper consists of a hooded skeleton that frequently carries a scythe.  They can commonly be found paired with dark and eerie landscapes such as graveyards, and it’s not rare to find a reaper tattoo next to a picture of a headstone with a loved one’s name.

Sometimes the skull is visible, and sometimes it is obscured by the hood of the cloak or a dark shadow. 

Let’s take a look at some of the popular combinations that can accentuate the meaning of this iconic tattoo.

Hourglass Combo

The reaper and the hourglass make a great pair considering the likeness of their symbolism.  The hourglass represents the finite time we have left to be alive, and once the sands of time run out the reaper will come for us all.

Clock Combo

Similar to the hourglass combination the clock is a popular instrument for telling time.  The clock symbolizes the constant creep towards the end and highlights just how fast time can pass.


Gun Instead Of Scythe

Though grim reapers are usually found holding a scythe, more modern depictions include other weapons such as guns.  The scythe is an old farming tool that was used to reap what farmers had sown, crops.  This tool marks the end of the life cycle of a plant by killing and harvesting it.

Firearms are much more modern weapons that also symbolize danger and death.  Just as a scythe ends the lives of crops, the gun can end the life of just about any living organism.


Angels can frequently be found juxtaposed next to the grim reaper, symbolizing the duality of life, good and bad, light and dark, hero and villain.  Angels are also associated with death and the afterlife.

Smoking And Drinking

Since the grim reaper is already dead or represents death, it can be found with symbols that are frequently associated with death like smoking, drinking, and drug use.  This is a bit of a joke that death can play because what is already dead cannot die.



The reaper can be paired with a dark-colored horse to symbolize the rapid approach of death.  The four horsemen represent the end of times and the apocalypse that will bring death to all.

Greek Symbols

Symbols from the Greek alphabet, specifically those representing alpha and omega, are common counterparts of reaper tattoos.  The alpha and omega illustrate the beginning and the end, the all-encompassing finality to life itself. 

The Noose

A tied piece of rope, known as the hangman’s noose, was a common way to hang criminals throughout history.  Because this method of punishment was so common, it accentuates the reaper well because death is an event that is common to everything that has ever lived.


Since the reaper itself is dead and spends its time collecting other lives it can commonly be found around piles of skulls.  These skulls symbolize the countless individual lives that death has taken and will continue to take.

Religious Symbols

The concept of what happens after death is something that varies greatly between religions throughout the world, but death itself is a constant between them.  Crosses, the triple six, as well as fire and brimstone frequently encompass reaper tattoos which depict the possibility of a  location such as a hell after death.


Final Thoughts

Reaper tattoos have been very popular since the conception of tattooing came about.  They can be used to represent a form of coping with loss, an attraction to the occult, or the struggle between good and bad within an individual.  This is not surprising as they symbolize the inevitable end that we all face as humans, which is death.  

Leave a Reply